Also around this time, Betsy DeVos was girding for a contentious confirmation battle over her appointment as Secretary of Education. She faced hostile opposition both from senate democrats still sore about the presidential election, and from teachers unions and ‘public school’ advocates who oppose what Mrs. DeVos has pushed for years; more freedom of choice & parental control in K-12 education.
The Department of Education arguably shouldn’t even exist in the first place. It is a prime example of those “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” as per the 10th amendment. If the only thing Secretary DeVos ever did was fold that department, she would be a success. Short of that, promoting more school choice is a close second.
From t-ball to cheerleading, music lessons to gymnastics, my girls have run the gamut of extracurricular activities. They’ve been as far away as the Y.M.C.A. downtown, or as nearby as baseball fields in Westover Hills. Distance has never mattered as much as the organization with whom we signed up.
Why can’t we have the same choice with their schools? Because at least here in Texas, where you pay property tax for your primary residence determines the public schools for your children.
This issue didn’t appear on my radar until I took Dr. John Merrifield’s urban & regional economics course at UTSA. He has spilled a lot of ink on this topic, including a few books, most notably perhaps 2001’s “The School Choice Wars”. Having just become a father at the time only heightened my interest.
We do have some semblance of choice here. In addition to the magnet schools, children can literally be ‘grandfathered’ in to the NISD if their grandparents live here and provide "significant after-school care". One of my daughter’s friends was able to go to the same elementary school because that’s where her mother taught. Transfers are possible for a handful of other reasons, but “are generally denied due to lack of space”.
If parents were allowed however, to use a proportionate amount of public revenue earmarked for education, they could send their kids to any school they choose, assuming it meets a minimum level of state-approved criteria (mastering certain levels of basic subjects by a certain grades). Beyond that, the schools would be free to specialize however they see fit: art schools for musicians, painters & actors; schools that cater to kids who like to build things; culinary schools when Easy-Bake Ovens will no longer do; technology schools for computer geeks. The possibilities are limitless.
These schools would be free to set their own tuition: more than, less than or equal to the amount allotted to each child by the state. But those prices would be unlikely to stay put. For example, if a particular metro area turned out to have a higher concentration of young would-be engineers than schools to serve them, the price of tuition would in all likelihood rise … in the short term. Parents might have to decide whether or not they value those schools enough to make up the difference. As Dr. Merrifield reiterated to me recently, that’s one reason the current system is flawed; it lacks such price signals.
One point I stress in my classes is that suppliers react differently to prices than demanders do. We’re all demanders, and thus familiar with that angle: price goes up, we buy less. However, only a handful of us are suppliers (excluding the labor we supply when we go to work), and thus not wholly in-tune with how they react.
Those higher prices would emit a signal of opportunity for enterprising entrepreneurs. To enter the market competitively, they’d have to charge lower tuition, offer more for the same price, or some combination of both. To stay competitive, the existing schools might expand. They also might extend financial assistance to those excelling students of lesser means. What could be better for a school’s reputation than educating the best & brightest?
More choices, lower prices, better quality … what’s not for a consumer to like??
All this assumes of course, a light, basic regulatory touch. Otherwise, innovation would be dulled, disincentives would arise, current market participants would become entrenched, etc. In other words, a wet blanket thrown on progress.
Alas, as it stands now the only price signal that exists in grammar school education is … real estate??
We’re all familiar with good sides of town, and not-so-good sides of town. The latter tend to be run-down, more susceptible to crime, gangs, etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, that negatively impacts property values, and in turn minimizes property tax collections.
According to the Texas Education Agency, about 50% of public school funding derives from property taxes (roughly 10% comes from Uncle Sam, while around 40% comes from the Lone Star). It hardly seems fair that a child’s education, the ultimate example of equality of opportunity, should be restricted by a socioeconomic situation not of his/her making.
The state legislature tried to remedy this a generation ago by passing what is commonly known as ‘Robin Hood’, whereby a school district that has “wealth per student that exceeds” a certain level subsequently has that excess “recaptured” and redirected to property-poor districts.
And a generation later, public school funding in Texas is still an issue.
Perhaps an alternative to property taxes could be a county or metro-area sales tax, a rate that would apply to ALL areas of town & the local economy uniformly. This would be a most efficient way to pull the funds. No more artificial inflation of property values. One less inefficiency in the rental market. A lesser tendency to build arguably exorbitant facilities tied as much to property wealth as student outcomes.
The Texas constitution states that the legislature “shall … make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools,” so some traditional ‘public’ schools would remain. Some parents may prefer the convenience of the nearby school. Some may simply not be able to get a bead on what it is their child has a particular knack for.
It also states that “a general diffusion of knowledge” is “essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people.” Education has spillover benefits. The knowledge & skills a student attains benefit the general public when employed on the push toward greater progress & prosperity.
No one is more vested, or has a greater interest in this venture than we the parents. My daughters are my best opportunity to make a positive impact on society. Their mother & I are as integral to their education as anyone or anything. It should be an option for us to fund their education with some portion of the taxes we pay, at whichever school we see fit.
A market of millions of parents can’t be wrong.